Monday, August 19, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Parent or Pursuit?

Vol. II, No. 5

"Ladies and Gentle-things, welcome to China Southern Airlines flight to Guilin."

It had been enough to make us smile, 'gentle-things', but not laugh. Neither of us was in the mood; we'd been up all night. Two days earlier, the baby had come down with a cold. I know: big deal. Babies get colds, and parents who write about babies getting colds should be locked up, right?

Right. So, let me make it clear that that is not what this post is about, although you're going to have to bear with me a moment while it seems like that's what this post is about.

Anyway, two days earlier, the baby came down with a cold. At first, it really was no big deal. But then, suddenly, she took a turn for the worse. She got sick in the streets where my husband spoke not a single word of Chinese, and I spoke about enough to order a parking meter for lunch. So, to our rescue came a leathery and wrinkled old woman, pulling a folded hanky out of her breast pocket to wipe the baby's face. While my husband and the old woman tended to the baby, I rushed the nearest foreign-looking woman to ask in English for the name of a hospital. The woman was French, and spoke very little English, but one look at my panicked face as I said, "Help, baby?" and she understood I needed a telephone number and some directions.

Meeting new friends in Shanghai
Armed with these, my husband and I took the baby home to our apartment in the French Concession. We didn't need the hospital just yet. Anyway, by this point, she'd calmed down. We certainly hadn't, but she had. Back at home, we canvassed our possessions to discover we'd brought very little with us from New York for emergencies. Later, there would be time to kick ourselves. For now, it was decided that I'd go shopping while my husband kept vigil over the baby as she slept.

In China, there are two types of pharmacies: Chinese and western. Chinese pharmacies sell some western medicine, but mostly Chinese medicine. Western pharmacies sell some Chinese medicine, but mostly western medicine. This time, I was not looking for an adventure; I just wanted the brands I was accustomed to.

So for the next two hours, I ran from Shanghai neighborhood to Shanghai neighborhood, asking anyone I came across where a western pharmacy might be. I ran west along Huaihai Zhonglu, north on Chongle, west again on Huashan, finally finding a Spanish-speaking woman who took me to a Chinese pharmacist who was willing to sell me local medicine, but he didn't have any Tylenol or Panadol. I was growing frantic, and I was angry with myself. But I'll get to that part in a moment.

Thanking the Spanish woman and the Chinese pharmacist, I left the shop and made my way back east, breathlessly running through the streets, stopping now and again along the way to try again to ask for directions to a western pharmacy. Finally, I found someone who knew the way.

"Yes, there is one a few kilometers from here but it closes in," the woman said as she looked at her watch, "twelve minutes."

She drew me a map, and I ran. And ran and ran. Eventually, a taxi pulled astride and I got in, explaining as best I could in Mandarin that I had a 急, an emergency, and needed to get to this address, the one I pointed to on the map. With exactly two minutes to spare, I arrived.

At the pharmacy, I explained the situation, as best I could anyway: baby, sick, emergency, need medicine, need thermometer. I probably don't need to recount the amount of effort both the pharmacist and I went to in order to translate each of these items, so I'll just tell you that it took awhile. Especially when the pharmacist carefully explained the correct dosage for the medicine I'd have to administer to the baby.

Back at home, and five hundred dollars later (slight overkill on account of guilt, which I'll get to), I checked on the baby. She was sleeping. Although she didn't need a hospital anymore, did she really need this trip, this adventure? It all seemed frivolous, despite the things I'd told myself before we'd left.

Which brings me, belatedly, to my point.

I never thought I'd have kids. I never even thought I'd get married. After leaving banking, I'd hoped to become a war correspondent. What man, I'd argued to myself, would fall in love with a female war correspondent? And what child wants that sort of woman as a mother? Before I'd met my husband, right before as a matter of fact, I'd tried to book a ticket to Kabul, Afghanistan. Back then, I'd been pretty committed to my dream, and I didn't think there was more than one path to a dream. I thought that you had to commit fully to pursuing something, or not commit at all. Sometimes I still think this. Sometimes I still wonder what would have happened if I had committed my entire life, and never fallen in love. But, I did choose love, the evidence of which was lying in a crib, waiting for me to come home to fix her.

So as we stayed awake that night and watched over the baby, I asked myself once again: how important was my dream to me? How important was adventure and travel now that I had a child? Should we turn tail and leave it behind for the safety of home? Luckily, my husband is pragmatic. He knew the baby would be fine; the medicine had already begun to work on her. But for me, the debate going on inside my head was about more than this particular trip. It was about what sort of woman I wanted to become.

My "co-pilot" and I
Once I'd become pregnant, I'd made a commitment to myself and my "co-pilot," as I'd called her before she was born, that I'd show her the world. That she and I would discover, adventure, and dream. It was my way of committing to myself while preparing for a lifetime of committing to motherhood. Would this trip to China end up making all that impossible?

As it turned out, it wouldn't. The next morning, with the baby firmly on the mend and bags stocked with emergency supplies, we boarded a flight to Guilin, bound for the countryside village of Yangshuo. Years earlier, I'd visited Yangshuo with my own mother, and it was to Yangshuo that it seemed important to return.

The plane took off, and the baby stood up on my lap, gazing at the passengers behind us. Waving to them, she laughed hysterically at her own private joke, and then fell fast asleep. So did I, only waking up hours later as we arrived.

Arriving in Yangshuo, China
"Fragrant passengers! Welcome to Guilin!" the flight attendant declared over the speaker.

Deeper into our adventure, I still wasn't sure we'd made the right decision to continue on. But I thought about some advice I'd been given from an adventurous Canadian friend with three young girls of her own: "If you want to travel with your kids, you have to commit to doing so. It'll be tough, but don't let the obstacles get you down. You have to persevere."

And so we did.

- Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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